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6 ways to cope with a resistant sponsor

Bart Perkins | Feb. 23, 2015
An executive sponsor who is out to undermine a project can be very dangerous.

A few years ago, the chief administrative officer at a multinational enterprise realized that, despite the extensive benefits projected, support for a new ERP system was not unanimous. In order to strengthen commitment, he forced the heads of finance, HR and manufacturing to sponsor the project within their respective areas. While the heads of finance and HR were enthusiastic about better automation, the VP of manufacturing liked the current systems and saw no need for ERP. Over the next few months, he publicly supported the project while simultaneously creating significant project roadblocks.

That VP of manufacturing was what I refer to as a resistant executive sponsor. Resistant sponsors can be very dangerous, becoming a burden to the project team and causing missed deadlines, budget overruns and even project failure.

At the other extreme of executives sponsors and their level of support for project teams are the enthusiastic (clearly the most desirable), and in between are the reluctant (supportive but already over-committed) and the minimally involved (really don't care unless they sense a career-limiting disaster).

Reluctant and minimally involved sponsors may simply be distracted (by aging parents, sick spouses, problem children, etc.) and fail to provide leadership, but they usually don't interfere. Resistant sponsors tend to be defensive and even aggressive, perhaps even launching attacks within their project. They may be afraid their empire will shrink if the project is successful, or fear being held accountable for the business case benefits. They may disagree with basic project goals, or use the project as a pawn in a political battle.

Resistant sponsors may be blatant or passive-aggressive in their efforts to block progress. Their techniques can include these:

  • Assigning inappropriate team members. Business areas that will undergo major change need a business project leader. Resistant sponsors avoid identifying anyone as long as possible. When pressed, they choose a weak or inexperienced project leader whom they can easily intimidate, control and manipulate.
  • Avoiding decision-making. Business process redesigns require a large number of trade-offs. Resistant sponsors specialize in ducking/bucking changes to critical business processes, often demanding time to consider before making any decision.
  • Second-guessing decisions. Resistant sponsors may direct their staff to make all but the most critical decisions, and then question virtually every proposed change. One resistant sponsor even stated, "All decisions are only 'draft' until I sign off on them." Even when a resistant sponsor authorizes a decision, he or she may revisit it months later.
  • Creating new requirements. Resistant sponsors often demand out-of-scope functionality or additional documentation after requirements have been finalized, disrupting the established work plan.
  • Becoming unavailable. Despite repeated invitations to attend design reviews, milestone checkpoints or other critical meetings, resistant sponsors inevitably discover a conflicting appointment. This slows progress and gives the resistant sponsor an excuse to reopen decisions later. The resistant sponsor may also use this opportunity to play the blame game and launch brutal personal attacks on project staff, claiming not to have been appropriately informed.


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